There is an article by Paul Vallely in the most recent Church Times about whether it’s bad manners to Tweet during a church service. It sparked quite an interesting discussion on my Facebook page, and I found myself wanting to say more about it than is really appropriate in the comments there, so I thought I would open up the debate further.
First of all, I don’t think that the real argument is about manners. I don’t mind if people in the congregation take notes (or doodle!) when I am preaching. I notice when I’m in the pulpit that some people have pen and paper to hand and others are on their phones or tablets. To me, it’s a sign they are (or might be) actually listening and thinking about what I am saying (or what they are hearing – all preachers know that the two are not necessarily the same thing). I agree with Vallely that tweeting is not the same as taking notes; it is a form of publication and communication, but how people want to engage (or not) with the sermon is up to them.
However, when I think about people tweeting during the rest of High Mass, I find myself getting a little twitchy. We gather as a community to pray and worship together, and part of me feels that if we spend that time viewing the service through our screens or communicating with others outside the church, our attention isn’t fully on God or our fellow worshippers. I don’t know if it’s because I’m old fashioned or because I’m terrible at multi-tasking and couldn’t pray and tweet at the same time myself or because I feel that having a small break from technology and the constant chatter of the world is no bad thing. Maybe it’s all three. And to some extent, typing away on a phone during the eucharist does feel as rude as tweeting or texting through a meal.
(I do think that there are serious questions to be asked about what is happening to us when we experience every part of our lives through a viewfinder or on a screen, and it would be more for these reasons than simply because it’s ‘bad manners’ that I would not wholeheartedly advocate the use of social media in church.)
But, on the other hand, to play devil’s advocate with myself, I know that at a church like Old Saint Paul’s, we use bells to let those both in the service and outside the walls of the church know what’s going on. Is tweeting really all that different? Is there a sense in which the two can serve the same function? Is Twitter the new sanctus bell?
The Bishop of London Richard Chartres said during the Christian New Media Conference last week that social media is the public square of today and that therefore the church porch is online. I myself argued something similar in my recent MLitt dissertation, and during a contextual bible study at our clergy conference on Paul’s speech to the Athenians, I suggested that the web is today’s Areopagus. Is it necessarily a bad thing to have tweets from a church service breaking into the chatter, alerting the people there that there is something significant going on, that there are congregations praying for them and the world in which we live?
I also know that when I am leading worship, the way in which I pray is very different from how I pray when I am sitting in the pews. Neither is more or less valid than the other. When I’m presiding, I am as aware of the congregation as I am of God, whereas when I’m in the pews, it becomes much more about my own direct and private prayers. So, if someone is tweeting during mass, does that really mean they aren’t paying attention? Could they not be ‘presiding’ in some way for those with whom they are communicating?Could it be that they decide to record part of the service because it is beautiful and prayerful and they want to share that experience with others? How can we (or should we) judge their motivations for posting something on social media during worship?
Once again, I think that when we debate how and when social media should be used by churches, it is not so much the media themselves that we are actually arguing about. At the heart of the discussion are our priorities and our understandings of what church is for and what is happening in worship. The most obvious example of these differences coming to the fore is in the practice of virtual Communion; it is impossible to talk about virtual Communion without acknowledging our different Eucharistic theologies.
Similarly, if we are going to discuss how to use social media both in church and as church, we need to recognise that we are likely to be making very different assumptions about our reasons for doing so. If, for example, we take models such as Avery Dulles’ of church as institution, community, servant, herald and sacrament, churches which function within these different models will use – and view – social media differently. A church as institution will rely on its authorities to speak for it; a church as community will use social media to strengthen that community; a church as herald will use social media to proclaim the Word, etc. This is wildly simplistic, of course, because our churches don’t tend to fit neatly into models, but hopefully you get my point. (There’s a good article on this on the New Media Project website.)
The important thing, I think, is to recognise that we we do have different priorities and callings, and all of these perspectives and gifts are needed if we are to spread the gospel well and widely. In a church like the Scottish Episcopal Church, where we say that we value diversity, shouldn’t this very real expression of diversity be acknowledged and celebrated rather than a cause of tension and offence?